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The often overlooked impact of strategic skill development

Lauren Weber

It’s funny to me that businesses need to build a case for investing in tech skill development. In the reality of our industry, why wouldn’t we want to learn new things? Why wouldn’t we want to learn how to do things better, how to keep our teams engaged, how to keep people growing and evolving?

If the human reasons aren’t enough, there’s a practical business reason for developing new tech skills: Old skills become obsolete. Technologies sunset, and best practices evolve. I recently talked with a customer who runs a .NET shop, and they are having a really hard time recruiting. Technologies don’t even have to be obsolete—if they’re just less exciting to use than newer tech, it becomes that much harder to hire talent.

Not evolving an organization’s platform, knowledge base and employee base is a business risk. Complacency will cost you. Your platforms will become obsolete. You will be unable to hire talent. Being proactive—and being smart about it—is bound to benefit your company, both in the bottom line and in ways that are less tangible.

Complacency kills businesses and careers

Let’s take a look at a non-tech analogy. Imagine we are writers. We learned to write longhand, so we never bought a typewriter because it was faster to use our pens—particularly because we hadn’t learned how to type yet. Then we never bought a word processor for the same reason. Our writing competitors bought computers, and we’re still using ink. Maybe it works great for us, and brilliant words flow from our pens. But we can’t get anybody to read our work, and we can’t take advantage of technology like our competitors can. We can’t change paragraphs and spacing, and we can’t send copies to thousands of readers in an instant.

If we’re hiring talent to suit our handwritten ways, we end up with an adverse selection problem. We find people who don’t like change, who don’t like challenges, who don’t want to try new things. I would be shocked to read those words in any job description. But when companies sit on their legacy systems, they create that kind of environment.

And that’s a best-case scenario. People talk about middle-case scenarios all the time: Your company can get left behind by not providing new services to the market. Worst-case, though: You’ve got a billion-dollar problem that puts your issues in the headlines. Think of those credit card breaches that make the news. Many of the people who get bounced from those companies are tech leaders who didn’t make the case for upgrading systems, or didn’t lie down in the road for them.

Skill evolution is a necessity for every function in an organization. We need to get off the defensive. Skill development is imperative for business survival, and our job as tech leaders is to look ahead and set up our companies for success. That means looking beyond short-term ease to long-term benefits. Continuing what we’re doing just because it has worked so far can end up running us off a cliff. We need to grow and adapt constantly if we want to continue to matter.

Skill evolution is a necessity for every function in an organization.

Tech skill development is more of a strategy than an investment

Investing in tech skill development essentially drives business growth and innovation. It improves the company’s ability to attract new people. It aids retention and reduces turnover. These realizations are nothing new, and neither are the hard financial benefits associated with them.

But tech skill development is more than a financial investment. It’s a strategy for the long-term health of products and organizations. And like all strategies, it has risks and trade-offs. Trying new technologies and moving forward with the ones that work best costs time and money (which are the same thing, some might say). But what are the costs of maintaining old systems? What are the security risks of staying stagnant? These outweigh any possible costs of ongoing skill development—especially when tech leaders embrace it as a continuous conversation.

Target skill development where both the organization and team members reap the greatest rewards. You’re not writing teams a blank check to go develop whatever skills they want. I give teams options for the skills they can develop and give them the resources to develop those skills in a hands-on way through conferences, online platforms, and internal and external development opportunities. It’s our job as leaders to determine which skills will best develop the organization’s longer-term viability and also inspire and excite our teams. We must be thinking beyond product metrics to things like employee retention, risk mitigation and infrastructure security.

And this is an ongoing strategy. “No” to a budget one year doesn’t have to mean “no” forever. Regularly assessing how teams can develop their skills means that new ideas are always surfacing, and skills that don’t make sense now can come back around when they will make more significant impacts.

I don’t believe you can tie the hours and dollars of skill development to a specific number in an earnings report.

Optimizing the business takes it where you want to go, even if you can’t find it in an earnings report

At the end of the day, CEOs and other high-level leaders do care about how decisions around skill development will impact the business. We do not care which data warehouse technology we use. We care what teams are optimizing the organization for and what problems we are solving for the business.

Are we aiming for speed? Reliability? Accessibility? Our ability to hire candidates quickly? Pricing? Probably a bit of all of those. We want to know which targets we are combining, and what factors go into those choices. We want to know the choice matrix that leads to our prioritization.

Have those conversations within the organization to make sure you all really understand what the problems are and that you are aligned before figuring out which tools you need and which skills your team members need to develop. Figure out which metrics you can drive to. Demonstrate how you’re going to see improvements in reliability, retention, productivity or whatever you’re prioritizing. Then, trust the employees you’ve hired to excel in making those improvements.

Of course it’s a good discipline to tie your initiatives back to metrics, and to tie those metrics back to the key company metrics—generally the ones aligned with what Wall Street cares about. But that is a complete oversimplification, and it’s also total bullshit. Often these initiatives are more about the spirit than the bottom line. I don’t believe you can tie the hours and dollars of skill development to a specific number in an earnings report. Reporting your returns down to the dollar sounds nice, but it can’t be done. What you can do is tie skill development to employee retention metrics. Better yet, you can tie an initiative to a critical business metric—like reliability—and let skill development be one of the tactics used to ensure the goal is achieved.

It’s a discipline in and of itself to be able to tie a training program or new technology strategy to outcomes, like site reliability or app speed, which may not drive specific revenue streams but may still demonstrably take the business where you want it to go.

Skill development ultimately builds relationships, which build teams

Beyond improving business outcomes, skill development improves relationships, just like date nights can improve a marriage. My husband and I have a date night every week. A date night is not a requirement for our marriage. We spend an extra chunk of change every week on dinner plus hiring a babysitter. We don’t need the extra calories in that bottle of wine. Yet we get a shared experience. It gives us time alone. It gives us time to chat. I don’t think any marriage counselor would say we need fewer date nights.

Investing in team skills is the same deal. If we go through a bootcamp together and we all learn the same skills, we develop a shared language. We build community. Shared experiences strengthen the team. And that’s on top of learning skills that improve our process and make us better at what we do. Think of skill development as team building—without the trust falls and maybe with a few more notes taken.

The impact of skill development comes down to team health. It’s not about improving next quarter’s numbers or next year’s sales. It’s about building an organization with long-lasting relevance.

The continuous experience of learning and growing shows employees that you care about them and want to invest in them. It’s so easy for people to quit a job and become excited about doing something new and different somewhere else. So you have to figure out how to keep it new and different where you are. You have to grow together with your teammates. And even though this may sound like the beginning of an HR violation, skill development works like a regular date night for your team, strengthening their relationships and helping them adapt to whatever new directions you choose to take together.

Amanda Richardson is the CEO of CoderPad and has more than 15 years of experience in product management, data and analytics, corporate strategy, operations and marketing. She was previously the CEO at Rabbit and Chief Data & Strategy Officer at HotelTonight. She also spent three years as VP Product at HotelTonight, where she managed platform relationships with Apple and Google and led multiple feature enhancements that improved conversion by over 30%. Amanda has also held product leadership roles at Prezi, and was SVP of Product and Marketing at Snagajob, where she oversaw the roadmap that drove more than 30% annual revenue growth and was responsible for achieving $20 million in advertising revenue targets.

Amanda holds a Bachelor of Science in commerce from the University of Virginia and a Master of Business Administration from Stanford University. She is an advisor to a number of startups and has been a featured speaker at the Mind the Product Conference, Women in Product Conference and Lean Startup Conference.